Lawrence: Uptown Theatre Restorations Livens Up Community

The Uptown Theatre

Photo by: Celeste Piraino

Listen to an excert from our interview with Alex Jorge here.

Friends, fans, and volunteers, such as Andy Pierce, are patiently waiting for the Uptown Theatre to throw open their doors to the people of Chicago.

“The project, when it begins, will take a year or more,” he said. “So we all will have plenty of time to pick out what we are going to wear to the grand opening.”

The historical building has sat empty since 1981, almost three decades ago. But with new ownership, some people question whether or not they will be able to restore the Uptown Theatre while still keeping its historical value.

According to Pierce, the intention of the present owners, Jam Productions, is to restore the building and use it for ticketed performances such as concerts and special events.

THE PRESENT

Jam Productions bought the building for $3.2 million at a forced judicial sale in 2008. According to Kathy McLeister of the Theatre Historical Society of America, the 46,000 square foot building needs a lot of work before it could ever reopen.

McLeister says the building is a hard hat zone. The terra cotta decoration on the outside of the theatre had to be taken down as the owners were afraid it would fall and hit pedestrians on the sidewalk.

With the excitement of the Uptown Theatre lighting up their neon sign once again, the buzz around the community is whether or not the new owners will rip out the original seats to make it a general admission.

The current auditorium hold 4,000 seats, all with very ornate siding.

“Personally, I would not be wild about that kind of concept but almost all theatres change with times to attempt to be successful in the market,” Pierce said. “No matter what, the Uptown will always be the Uptown.”

The removal or exchanging of the old seats for new ones might be necessary. As McLeister pointed out, seats made in the 1920’s were both shorter and narrower than seats concert goers are used to.

Besides the communities feelings towards the original seats versus new seats or no seats, Pierce goes on to say that the concept seems to have the support of local leaders and there’s been no recorded opposition.

Jerry Mickelson, of Jam Productions, told the Chicago Tribune he is currently trying to find a way to fund the kind of renovations that the building will need which he estimates to be $70 million dollars.

“No private entity could afford to put that amount of money into a theatre”, he told the Chicago Tribune. “The Uptown can only reopen with the necessary funding from the city.”

Public funding could be a possibility with Emanuel’s support of the project.

“If you look at it from the big picture perspective, which is what I think Rahm Emanuel and a lot of people are doing, that seventy million dollars translates to millions of other dollars that are going to be invested in the Uptown area,” Jorge said.

THE FUTURE

Although the front doors may be boarded and the giant marquee is left with only rusty letters and empty light-bulb sockets, according to the Chicago Tribune, the new owners and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel see the Uptown Theatre as a way to rejuvenate the north side of the city. Eventually, turning Uptown into Chicago’s entertainment district.

In the past, the Uptown area has been considered a “rough” neighborhood. But, according to the Aragon Ballroom event coordinator, Alex Jorge, the view of Uptown has gotten better over the years because live music is getting more attention, which draws an audience to the area.

THE PAST

Located on the corner of Broadway and Lawrence, the Uptown Theatre was once considered to be the best place in Chicago to see a movie. When it opened in August 1925, it was the place to see and be seen.

After its role as a movie and stage venue for fifty years, the theater became the spot to see concerts in the 1970’s. Uptown theater hosted everyone from classical performers in its prime to cultural icons such as Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead in the seventies.

It was a walk through memory lane for Mike Rytie, an employee at Shake, Rattle, and Read, as he reminisced about his experience at the Uptown Theatre.

“I use to see concerts there,” he said. “I saw Bruce Springstein, Prince, and Bob Marley and the Wailers. I always had the best times at Uptown.”

But in 1981, after the owners were unable to afford to sustain the theatre, the pipes froze and busted leaving nothing but years of maintenance and vandalism. The only thing the owners could do was shut the theatre down completely.

Since the theater closed in 1981, it has been used as a location for scenes in movies such as Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. The interior for the “Duncan’s Toy Chest” was actually shot inside the Uptown Theaters lobby.

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